Forgotten newspaper cuttings reveal how democracy hope has faded - Businesslive

26 April 2021 - For one reason or another it’s been a week of delving into my archives and being by turns fascinated, dispirited and cheered by what I found.

Michael Morris

For one reason or another it’s been a week of delving into my archives and being by turns fascinated, dispirited and cheered by what I found.

I had quite forgotten, for instance, that until 1993 at least (and, who knows, it may still be the case) taking snuff was a quaint privilege in the House of Assembly, a small aluminium snuff-box being kept at the lobby entrance under the watchful eye of the serjeant-at-arms for the convenience of MPs.

This old privilege, dating back to the pre-union Cape parliament, had miraculously survived, though even by 1993 it must have seemed distinctly anachronistic. At any rate, I was evidently certain enough of my facts to report on December 23 of that year that, “until yesterday, the snuff-box was still in use”.

And there was a good reason for that qualifying “until yesterday” for, on December 22 1993, I had sat in the press gallery of the old teak-panelled House of Assembly to witness the last sitting of white MPs in SA’s history.

When I found the cutting I was astonished to realise that I had not the faintest recollection of the event, or of anything that was said. Perhaps this is no surprise: the date for the first democratic election had already been set for just a few months hence, and this final meeting in the burnished, green-benched chamber was almost poignantly afflicted by its own inescapable irrelevance.

As traditions go, could there have been anything as anachronistic at the tail-end of the 20th century as the legislature of a country in Africa being composed entirely of pale-skinned legislators? Yet it remained interesting last week — prompted in part by the approach of Freedom Day — to be reminded of some of the ideas that were shared on that summer afternoon, on the cusp of great change.

Conservative Party leader Ferdi Hartzenberg likened the moment to the Treaty of Vereeniging, “the loss of our freedom”, but leader of the house (and controversial apartheid-era minister) Adriaan Vlok judged it differently: “I am sure I speak for the majority,” he said, “when I say that we do not see this as an end, but a new beginning for a better future.”

Yet, looking back from 2021 at those days of great anticipation and unmistakable optimism, the dispiriting reality is that so much of the hope and goodwill has, in so many ways, remained unrewarded or been left to wither in the intervening years.

And you could see it coming. Among my papers I found a Reuters report of June 23 1999 — “S.African President Mbeki's team urged to deliver” — in which correspondent Jeremy Lovell wrote: “The emphasis for the country’s second democratically elected government will be on administration that delivers on the promises made to the poor, economists and analysts told Reuters.”

“The big problem so far has been implementation. It has been lacking,” Sanlam chief economist Jac Laubscher said. “We would like to see a move away from policy formulation to policy implementation for the next five years,” agreed HSBC analyst Nick Boraine.

Robert Schrire, a University of Cape Town professor of political science, said the vast legislative programme of the first black government from 1994 to 1999 had outstripped the ability of agencies to enforce it.

That was more than two decades ago, yet how depressingly familiar it all sounds.

At least we have a democratic parliament, rather than the old racial conclave that closed shop in 1993. That’s an inestimable benefit. We just have to learn to use it better.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.